Friday, January 31, 2014

Elevator Pitches and their Disservice

Should a book be defined in a single sentence? Don’t ask me why this random thought jumped into my head, but it did. Most writers have to create an “elevator pitch” to give to agents and editors. The idea is that you happen to get into an elevator with a top publisher/agent. You have until they get to their next floor to pitch them your grand novel. What would you say? 

I hated coming up with pitches…I don’t know why I put that in the past tense because I still do. They are horrible. A page? I can rock that summary. Although, a publishing house once asked me for three pages and I had the hardest time. When I first started, I would sit down with agents at conferences. We were given 15 minutes to sell ourselves…which is actually a lot better than a one-page query letter. But part of this was the idea to “pitch” the book in a sentence. Keep it simple. Tell me the gist. But also wow me. 

I haven’t pitched my work for a while, but I still have to summarize my books in a sentence. Amazon actually has a section on one of their reading sites where you summarize a book in one sentence. I forget what they call it, but it was something like the insanely short summary. I had to practice this art when creating bookmarks last year. 

But I got to thinking….should a book even be able to be defined in one little sentence? I think this goes along with the idea that publishers want cookie-cutter novels. They want something they can “easily” sell. But is that something I want to read? The books I love the most are the ones with two or three plot lines. In suspense novels, I love the authors who can twist multiple storylines that seem unrelated and tie them together (besides the whole they are relatives). I wondered if they could define the book in one sentence. Sure, we can come up with general statements. Lord of the Rings is an adventure to destroy a powerful ring that corrupts its owner. But, it seems a disservice to J.R.R. Tolkien’s series to summarize it in just that one sentence. That series is so much more than that.  Likewise, I can say J.K. Rowling’s series on Harry Potter is about a boy coming to terms with his parent’s death and his legacy while taking on a wicked sorcerer. But, again, the story is so much more than that. 

As you can see, I’m not very good at making a sentence compelling and gripping, but I start to wonder if we lose something in the summation. Do we turn into those movie trailers that are nothing like the actual movie? Books should have layers. They should have a complexity that shouldn’t be defined in a sentence. And if they can be, then maybe they are too simple to keep my interest. Or maybe that’s just me.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Three Worst Writing Advice

One of my writer groups had an interesting discussion the other week. We discussed the worst writing advice ever given. I found it interesting what some writers decided was the “worst” that I actually like. I also found it interesting which ones appeared on their lists in general. I sat back and started to think about what advice I have discarded over the years.  So, here it is, my three worst writing advice encountered over the years.

1.       Draw up a plot outline and/or character outline. I agree on two areas with this piece of advice. The first is that plot is important. I have been helping a young girl with a story she’s trying to write. Throughout the critique process, I kept asking her if she knew where the story was heading. This is probably an unfair question. For me, I know how I begin and how I want to end. Over the course of writing, I figure out the details from point A to B. If she doesn’t know the ending, then she at least needs an idea of where she wants to go. Also, I agree that character development is important. It is good to know my characters. Where I stray from this is when people pull out extensive diagrams. They map every single detail of the plot. They dive into an extensive back story of their characters, dissecting them like a psychologist. I find the process too stifling and cumbersome. Spending all of our time mapping and planning doesn’t work when, halfway through, creativity happens and everything changes.

2.       Join a critique group. I know, I know. This is highly used advice. Here’s why I caution against it. Most critique groups will be filled with people who set out to “critique” and yet many don’t know how to provide constructive criticism. Some just want to tear a piece down simply because it is not how they would have written it. It’s not that writer’s shouldn’t seek advice, but don’t seek it constantly and don’t seek it just anywhere. It should be in a structured environment where constructive criticism is taking place. Sometimes that’s hard to decipher individually, we’re too close to the situation. Therefore, maybe do so in a structured environment like a creative classroom.

3.       “You can’t.” There is a lot of advice out there about how to write a novel. You can’t start with a prologue. You can’t write in the omniscient. You can’t, you can’t, you can’t. Most of the time, they’re wrong. What they should say is writing omniscient is hard to do properly, so maybe stray away from it. Or agents tend to hate prologues because of this. It doesn’t mean you can’t do either, but when you do, it has to have purpose…the same is true with anything regarding a story. 

So, what’s the best? Keep writing. Can’t publish the first book? Keep writing. Stuck? Keep writing. That’s the only way to grow, develop, and, ultimately, become successful.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Monday's Quote: Mae West

"You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough." ~ Mae West

This seemed to be the most popular post last week. I can see why. It reminds me of the movie Dead Poet's Society, where the teacher proclaims students should embody the "Carpe Diem" motto. Seize the Day. Live for the moment. Of course, that idea sot of back fires on one of the students when he seizes the day in a way his parents disapprove. Not only that, but then he continues to disregard their views without ever having a conversation with them. I can relate to that after teaching teenagers. They are convinced their side won't matter anyway. I guess that is a topic for another conversation.

I agree with the idea of seizing the day as long as it is done intellectually. Don't jump off a bridge and claim you were seizing the moment. But, take advantage of the opportunities that arise. Don't let fear hold you back. I constantly have to tell myself that. I always try to push myself out of my comfort zone. Do I like it? No. But I grow. And I live. And, hopefully, in the end I can say that I have done it right and I am satisfied.

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Friday, January 24, 2014

How Sidekicks Can Help a Series

I had the conversation where interest was shown in a series mainly due to the sidekicks. That got me to thinking about how sidekicks can help enhance a series (and/or ruin it). In fact, I think the strongest tool a writer has is the sidekick. The first reason is because a sidekick has the potential to add some comic relief to the situations. They are the ones who innocently trip our protagonist up. They are the sarcastic characters. They are the jokesters. They are not strong enough to be the lead, but their weakness is what makes them loveable. We want to see them protected by our main character. The second reason is because the sidekicks can be switched around. What I have noticed in a longer series is the need to keep things fresh. The story has to keep changing and each book needs to feel new. But, like a relationship that endures, after a while the “spark” is gone. That doesn’t mean I don’t like the main character anymore. I just know too much about them. They are not “new.” Some series switch what characters play the “sidekick” in each novel. Typically the switch depends on the plot and which character would be around in the given situation. This also opens the opportunity to provide a new character even if a series is five or more books in. The character can arise in the new situations and then stay. 

I think sidekicks play a bigger role in novels than readers realize. For instance, I sat back and thought about which novels/movies are made successful by the sidekick, which ones would flop if the sidekicks were removed? Here is my list, but I would be interested to know if you have any. 

1. Despicable Me: I’m sorry, but the minions make this movie. In fact, I don’t think I would even like the movies (which I absolutely love) if they were gone. Gru is okay and his plot line is interesting, but the minions are what keep my attention as Gru goes about his business. They are funny. They are innocent. And, most of all, they show me that there must be a redeemable quality about Gru (especially in the first movie), which keeps me interested in his plot. 

2. Dresden Files: this is a series that switches the sidekicks, so I thought I’d just list the series. He has fairies and vampire relatives and a talking skull. All of which provide comic relief and all of which keep the series new. In fact, when I was getting bored, he introduced a medical examiner who enjoys Polka and I was right back into the series. 

3. Pirates of the Caribbean: I guess you could argue that Jack Sparrow is a main character, but I see the first movie as a discussion about Ms. Swan’s kidnapping. He plays less of a lead role, in my opinion. And, if that character was not done well, the movie would not be the same.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Can Writers Move Away from Genres?

With all of the award shows and singing competitions, I keep coming across the same concept in music: genre shouldn’t matter. In other words, Kelly Clarkson should be able to sing pop, country, or whatever strikes her. In fact, she was quoted during December as saying she enjoyed doing her Christmas album because she could write without having to worry about what genre it sounded like. The idea is that we should appreciate “music” not the genre. Country should sell in the pop realm and vice-versa. We should even blend the genres.

I started thinking, as I always seem to do, about the writing world. When I first got into the business, I remember going to conferences and agents proclaiming a “red flag” to them was when an author started saying “my work is a blend between.” In other words, they wanted one genre, not a mixture. The argument is that publishers know how to sell something cookie-cutter, thereby agents can’t sell them something “new.” Yet, with all of the self-published work arising, I began to wonder if the writing industry is moving away from genres.

It seems to me that authors have always wanted to just write their story. They don’t want to worry about where it fits in the market, but just want to be creative. However, I think it is important to remember our audiences. A writer can create a story they think is great, but if they want to sell that novel then others have to think it is great as well. So, should we walk away from genres just because there is no longer an outside source demanding them?

I think we shouldn’t. However, this isn’t to say that every fantasy novel should look the same and that every mystery should look the same, but they should share elements. In fact, I just finished reading a fantasy novel where the only “fantasy” aspect to it were stones that held certain healing traits. I ended up not liking the novel because it didn’t live up to my expectations of a fantasy novel.

How do I know the expectations? I read the genre. That will help define what should and should not be in a novel. Can a fantasy book have some romance in it? Sure. In fact, I find I can’t read a novel anymore without a sense of romance in it. But does that make it a romance book? No. We therefore shouldn’t say it is a blend between the genres. Ultimately, I think that is the mistake the music industry has. Can there be a blend. Yes. But fans of certain genres are to going to like a song with too many elements from another. The same is true for novels. 

So the story is important. Should we try to focus more on story than fitting a mold? Absolutely, otherwise it’ll become too boring. But, should we blend so far that we lose sight of the genre (and therefore the target audience), I don’t think that is wise.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Monday's Quote: Coco Chanel

"Success is most often achieved by those who don't know that failure is inevitable."~ Coco Chanel

This was the most liked on my Facebook page last week. I can see why. I agree the secret to success is to not acknowledge the idea of failure. I discussed this last week as well. Failure is highly probable. The odds are definitely not in our favor. The universe asks us how much we want our dreams. But, if we behave as if it is not an option, if we believe there are no other options, then we have to succeed. I live my life believing this.

I do understand that this may be a delusion. I may wake up one day and not have what I desire. But, if I wake up one day and am in the exact same spot, then I have no one to blame but myself. I should be ever learning, ever changing and moving forward (even in small increments). But I can never give up. That is the key.

Have a happy Monday!

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Friday, January 17, 2014

How to Make a "Bad" Character Loveable

I decided to do this week’s quote as a continuation on Wednesday’s discussion. The idea is: could a lead character be a “villain” and still gain interest. My initial idea was no because of a new cop show on NBC. However, I started to second guess that decision when thinking about a show I love “the Blacklist.” Therefore, I have come up with the most “lovable” leads with strongly questionable characters. After making this list, I am ready to say why they work while the cop show does not…in my opinion.

1. Michael Corleone, The Godfather. A son who inherits a mafia empire, he begins the series as an “honest” citizen. Then he is pulled into the family business and spends the rest of the time trying to survive while always wanting to get out. Why does he work as someone people want to follow? I think in part we sympathize with his plight. In a way, he did not “choose” this lifestyle. It was handed down to him, almost pressured upon him. Then the series became a curiosity. Can he get out? Can he make the business clean? The evils he commits along the way are excused because it is part of the life he was thrown into. Kill, or be killed.

2. Raymond “Red” Reddington, The Blacklist. I thought long and hard about why I like this character so much. It really has nothing to do with the actor, because this is the first time I really like him. The character was not thrown into the life. He chose to leave the CIA for a life of crime. Why he chose is unknown and irrelevant. He admits he’s a criminal. But he is also very charismatic. Part of what makes him acceptable is that he does not disguise who he is. He does not pretend to be innocent. And he always has a reason for what he does…in his own mind.

3. Iago, Othello. I had to throw one literature character in here. Most people think this play is about Othello. I believe it is actually about Iago’s revenge upon the general. He may be twofaced toward Othello and his men, but Iago tells the audience from scene one what his intentions are and why. Then he goes about orchestrating a master plan, manipulating Othello toward demise. His motivations are those the readers can clearly understand. He is not simply psychotic. He was driven toward his endeavor.

So, what do these characters have in common and why do I care even though they are “bad.” They never deny who they are. Their deplorable acts are justified by the life they chose. They have charm, and they are not simply “insane.” I can see their motivations, even if I don’t accept it. And they never trick me. A dirty cop doesn’t work for me because it is a contradiction. Cops are supposed to be good and honest. Taking bribes is not justified in that particular line of duty.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Does a "Bad" Hero Work?

Does a “bad” hero, or a “bad” lead work in literature? I started to think of this question for one main reason. I am in love with the show Chicago Fire. I’m sure it is much like movies/shows based on teachers where the accuracy of how they depict the job is slightly flawed (my favorite teacher show flaw is when they find a couple of students fighting and simply split it up and let the kids walk away). Anyway, I am completely hooked. Starting last week, the show has a spinoff in the form of Chicago PD. I was intrigued because it uses the brother of a character from the original show, who appeared a few times. However, one of the leads is a “bad guy” from the original series. 

I haven’t given up hope for the spinoff, but am doubtful it will grab my attention. My problem is that this lead has been established as a dirty cop. What’s worse is that it appears from the first episode that he has not changed his ways. The show is trying to show multiple sides to this man. They show him care for kids, for instance, in street gangs, offering them an avenue of escape. I’m sure future episodes will show this softer side of his character. However, I can’t get over the fact that he is still a dirty cop. This brought about my original question.

What complicates this issue is that most writerly advice suggests that heroes should be flawed. A character that remains unflawed reads more like a comic book hero…although I guess it can be argued that even these are often flawed. I have even discussed before how I enjoyed the fact that the character struggles. A prime example of that is Tris from the Divergent series. She begins the series struggling to join the new Dauntless clan. Then, throughout the book, she struggles with her own identity and how that relates to the politics. She can be selfish and impulsive, but those qualities make her more human. 

Chicago PD tried to allude to my sympathies by having the main character care for a boy who obviously inherited the gangster lifestyle. But every “villain” should be complex as well. If a villain is all bad, then the story will read too much like a Disney movie. They need to have some sort of motivation for being the way they are. So, what differentiates between a villain and a hero seems to be what “flaws” and “offenses” can we forgive? Selfish and impulsive…sure, everyone is like that. Taking bribes from drug lords…probably not. 

So, can a lead be a villain? I know the movie Psycho gets acclaim for killing off the heroin and leaving us with the serial killer’s point of view. But not everyone is Alfred Hitchcock. But, then again I also love the show Blacklist, where a clear villain shares the spotlight. I may have to think on this more and do a follow up. What are your thoughts?

Monday, January 13, 2014

Monday's Quote: Glenn Beck

"Sometimes the hardest part of the journey is believing you're worthy of the trip."~ Glenn Beck

I have to start by saying that I typically don't like Glenn Beck. I won't get into why here, but this quote goes to show that we can disagree and/or not like a particular person and still acknowledge the value in some of what they say.

Anyway, I like this quote because it speaks to the nature of those who pursue dreams. I know when I was younger, I pursued the dream of writing but never fully believed that I was good enough. This stems from a lot of teenage psychology that I won't get into here, but I don't feel like I am unique. I think it is important to ask ourselves if we truly believe we are worthy of achieving what we desire.

I think this is different than "wanting" a dream. I really, really wanted to be a writer. I knew that writing made me happiest and that I wanted to share that with the world. And I knew I wanted to do it for a living. I wanted the dream just as much as anyone. But I did not believe I was worthy. I think part of that was because I recognized I still needed to grow in my craft. But, even still, it took a long time to acknowledge that I am worthy of being a writer. I am worthy of having people read my work. I am worthy of this trip. It's a nice thought to hold.

Happy Monday! I am now doing two quotes everyday on my Twitter and Facebook feeds. Please follow/like me and give feedback on what quotes you enjoy.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Don't Wait for Dreams, Take Them

I think I have discussed this before on my blog, but I am a huge Big Bang Theory fan. Last week, the episode really caught my attention. One character, Penny, has been trying to make it as an actress since the show premiered, waiting tables until her big break. She thought it came when a popular detective show cast her as an extra, only to find the scene was cut by airtime. She, of course, was upset, and soon asked her boyfriend if he thought she would make it as an actress. He replied no, that she was great but so is everyone else. He said the odds of her becoming a huge star are so limited due to the competitiveness. Their relationship is obviously on the rocks, which is what the show’s focus will undoubtedly be. 

However, nothing he said was wrong. In fact, I have thought the same things before. Just a side note, I don’t think we should ever TELL someone directly this fact because it is depressing and can end many pursuits. I think I’ve also mentioned before a blog post by Jim Butcher a few years ago that said the key is to keep going. Despite this reality, you have to keep going. The key, therefore, is on many levels not about talent but about outlasting the competition. However, it cannot be denied that there are a lot of fish in the writer sea…and they are talented. I used to tell myself all I had to do was get noticed outside of those with no talent. This is far from true. Many have my talent or even better. The key is to outlast. 

This year, one of my friends posted something on twitter. She said she was tired of people saying they hoped the New Year would be great. She said instead we should say we are going to MAKE the New Year great. I like her spin on it. We are in more control than we think. I hear a lot of people say they are “waiting for their big break.” I have recently decided that this means they will be “waiting” for a very long time…unless they are very lucky. I’m not lucky. If there is a drawing for prizes at work, my name is one of the very last drawn…if they are drawing everyone. So, when people say that luck plays a huge role in success, I get very depressed. 

My proposal is not to “wait” for dreams to come true. I propose we make them happen. We do everything in our power to be successful. We do our research. We exhaust every avenue. We work, work, work. And, most of all, we never let people convince us that the reality applies to us. That is the only way to achieve any dream, whether it is acting, writing, sports related, or the next Nobel Prize winner. Let’s spend the next twelve months making things happening instead of watching them happen to others.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

2014 Writing Goals

I actually meant to post this last Friday, but came down with the flu. However, when starting a new year, I have been making a few goals in my personal life—always some writing—to help me achieve my desires. But, I thought this year it might be nice to share goals specific to writing.

Goals for 2014 (in no particular order)

1.       To read through “1001 Ways to Market Your Books” by John Kremer. While I have gotten better, I still feel like I have room to grow in the marketing area. My hope is that this book will give greater insight into different strategies that will help me. My hope is that it won’t be like other marketing books I’ve read, where I walk away thinking “that’s genius, now how does it apply to my situation?” Anyone read it? If so, what did you think?

2.       Publish a new book. For many reasons, I have been stagnant in new publications for far too long. 2014 will bring forth a new book in my Atlantis series (the second). I am hoping to have the backlist up on Amazon by February/March and then a new book out around June. That’s the goal…and one I will desperately try to fulfill.

3.       Attend a Comic Convention. I have been thinking for about year now that I need to go to one. I believe this is a nice place to find my market. I also think it will be great to hang out with people who like the same genre I do. Don’t get me wrong. Hanging out with all the mystery and southwest authors is a kick in its own right. But, there is a special place for the love of wizardry and the supernatural.

4.       Attend a Writer’s Convention. Of course, budget will dictate how many of these goals I achieve, but I haven’t been to a writing convention in a few years. I have exchanged them for creative writing classes and…of course…work. However, I always feel refreshed after one…well, except the one whose theme was writers exist without appreciate, struggle to make it and then die. That was not very uplifting. But, for the most part, there are some great conventions and I am dying to mingle with other writers and rejuvenate my juices. If you know of any good ones, please let me know in the comment section below.

5.       Find a new editor. My editor and I had to part ways last year. While I found a proofer, I do believe in the importance of finding a good editor for my new books. It doesn’t take long to know both have their merits.

6.       Read. I set the goal of 20 books this year, which is daunting at the moment, but doable. Writers can’t be good at their craft if they are not readers.

7.       Write!! I don’t think I can ever get enough writing, and I want to write.

What’s on your goals for 2014?

Monday, January 6, 2014

Monday's Quote: William Shakespeare

"We know what we are, but not what we may be."~ William Shakespeare

The past few weeks, I highlighted how  much of our futures are up to us. I can decide to be whoever I want. I control my future, and that is wonderful. But I like this quote because it reminds me that no matter what I have planned, nobody knows what the future holds. There are countless possibilities that exist that I may not have even thought about. The key is to be active.

So, in this beginning of the New Year, that is what I hope for you and me. I hope that I don't lock myself up too much for the sake of writing. Nothing is going to happen unless I make it happen. And, as Shakespeare said, there is no way to predict the changes that may come as a result.

I hope you all are having a happy start to 2014 and a wonderful Monday.

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Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Happy New Year!

I hope you all had a wonderfully safe night and a great start to the new year! I'm spending the day with my family, but will be back to writing on here come Friday. A whole new year of my adventure in the writing world!